Farming

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Worship at the church of sustainability

If you want to sell a product or a concept you wrap it up in a good story. You want your potential customer to feel good about buying your product. Even better, make them feel that they are missing out if they don't buy from you.

The buzzword in food marketing these days is sustainability. Sustainability is now a virtue like motherhood and political correctness. It's akin to good citizenship. It's about saving our planet.

The concept may have a touchy-feely whiff about it but all of the big food players are now into sustainability. The idea is already big business in farming and food and will grow bigger.

Just look at the websites and mission statements of the food giants.

"Sustainability is about being ready for the future. Climate change, water scarcity and limited resources will impact on our business. That is why we are taking decisive action now," is Diageo's take on the subject.

Unilever has concluded that sustainability will become a driver for business growth.

Walmart reckons that sustainabililty is the single biggest business opportunity of the 21st century and the next source of competitive advantage.

Along the same lines, Marks and Spencer has stated that it intends to establish a sustainabililty gap between itself and its competitors.

If further proof were needed to confirm sustainabililty is now mainstream, it comes from the fact that the IFA has organised a conference on the topic.

I sought a couple of definitions for this 14-letter word. Here's one I liked. Sustainabililty stands for exploiting natural resources without destroying the ecological balance of an area. To this I would add animal welfare, biodiversity and carbon footprint.

Fair dues to Bord Bia. They recognised early that sustainabililty was hurtling down the food chain. Their first nudge to Irish farmers came with the Quality Assurance schemes. Last year they promoted the on-farm measurement of carbon footprints. Last autumn the package was brought together with the launch of the Origin Green Ireland – working with nature.

Happily for Irish farmers, and for the rest of our food chain, we start in a good place on sustainabililty.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, we are one of the lowest in the EU. According to Bord Bia, our dairy farmers are the joint lowest with Austria and our beef farmers are among the five lowest countries. One of the key issues in terms of weighing up the sustainability of any food production system these days is the impact it has on local water supplies. It goes without saying that our oodles of water will be a strong point.

This is a marvellous story to be able to tell the customers for Irish food. For example, McDonald's flagship farmer for promoting their burgers across Europe is a young man from Laois. Ireland now has a growing reputation in the marketplace as a source of quality, safe food.

Happily, low carbon footprints and greenhouse gas emissions, along with sustainability in general, can be significantly aligned with good farming practice.

The higher the growth rate and the sooner a beef animal is slaughtered, the lower the carbon footprint. Similarly positive for both profit and sustainability is the efficient and balanced use of fertilisers and other inputs.

Our grass-based livestock systems and green image are a godsend for Bord Bia and others promoting Irish food.

But there is no room for complacency. Also, there is a catch to this fairytale. In this age of traceability and transparency our sustainability story needs to be verifiable and backed with inspections and maybe even spot-checks. Compliance with best environmental, animal welfare practices (as per EU dicta) will be expected.

Once upon a time an Irish exporter could bring his overseas customer to a handpicked farmer supplier. Now, the big buyers like McDonalds, Tesco and the like will inspect the Irish exporter's list of suppliers from which they will pick names for inspection at random.

If Irish farmers are serious about their business and if they want to hold on to their growing reputation for quality, everybody will have to enlist into this church of sustainabililty.

Indo Farming